I could still hear the Irish tune ringing in my ears even as it faded the farther I got from the pub. It was a risky move to drink with the sailors—they might recognize my face later—but I had to make sure they were hammered as a blacksmith’s block.
They drank and I poured. The barmaid was happy to have help that night. I listened closely to conversations between the men. Once I heard the name of the ship that was set to sail to America the next day, I made my way outside.
The night was cold as ever, but the wool cloak I’d pilfered from the seaman who’d passed out before the others would keep me warm—or at least keep the frigid sea spray off my skin. I pulled the hood down and quickly shuffled across the dock.
Only one man was posted at the merchant ship heading for the colonies. He was easily bought with the bottle of whiskey I grabbed on my way out the door of the pub.
I slipped aboard the ship and found a crawl space in a cupboard on deck. I rearranged the mops and buckets best I could and hid myself behind them. Thankfully, I was slight as a reed, and I’d had plenty of practice at being quiet. I’d stowed away on a ship just a week before from Scotland to Ireland and not been caught. It was the only way to escape the redcoats after they killed my parents and siblings.
As confident as I was that this next trip would deliver me the freedom I so desperately sought, I also knew that if caught, the ship’s officers would either pass me around to the sailors or throw me overboard.
I counted the hours in my head: If I was lucky, the men would sleep off the ale and whiskey for four, maybe five hours, and then they’d all come aboard by morning to take to the seas. I should sleep now.
I awoke to the sounds of men shouting orders and the waves crashing against the sides of the ship. The men opened the compartment door multiple times letting light in, which threatened to reveal me. It was first light—it had to be—because they were grabbing all the mops that obscured me.
Each time a seaman opened the door, a rush of cold air washed over me. And each breath I took was filled with the taste of the sea. I couldn’t help shivering and heard my teeth rattling in my head. It seemed to broadcast my presence, and I tried clenching my jaw to stifle the sound.
When the last mop had been returned, I sighed quietly. My muscles were taut from the fetal position in which I laid; my bones frozen and weary. I’d had nothing to eat since I’d arrived in Ireland. My stomach loudly announced this and I wrapped my arms tighter around my body, as though I could squeeze it into silence.
It would be a long journey across the sea, but how long, I wasn’t sure. I’d heard the men talk about not returning until spring, but that was months away. I knew I had to find a way to the galley for food at some point.
Based on my last voyage, I knew the men would be back to swab the decks again just before sundown. They had no reason to post guards on the ship, except a few men at the bow to keep watch on the weather and for navigation. I could sneak out quietly and find scraps before the rats.
As the morning had gone, so had the evening. Men came for the mops, and then returned them. The chatter died down as the sailors turned in for the night or joined officers for a drink. What I wouldn’t give for a bit of whiskey to warm my insides.
I heard boots clunk by on the wooden planks just outside my makeshift room and down a flight of stairs. And then silence. This was my chance. I slid by the mops and buckets and slowly opened the door. There was a warm light coming from a room just below deck. The sea was calm under a clear sky. For a moment, I stood there trying to remember what it was like to not be wet or cold. But I lingered too long.
A large hand curled around my arm and I gasped.
“What do we have here?”
The raspy voice belonged to a burly man who was at least twice as tall as me.
“Murphy, get the captain, would ye? Seems we’ve a lad stowing away,” he said to another sailor.
I dare not speak or I’d risk him knowing I was a woman. Women were considered bad luck aboard a ship and I knew my fate was likely to be a salty grave.
I shrank away from his grasp, but this only encouraged him to grip tighter.
“No point in running now, wee ‘un,” he said.
Before I could stop him, he pulled the hood back from my head and he saw my soft features in the moonlight. His eyes widened as the superstition drove his fear.
“That’s no boy,” Murphy said.
“Aye, we’ve got a lass here,” the burly man said. “You trying to wreck our ship, are ye?”
I squirmed out of his hand somehow and turned to face him.
“No, I just want to get to the colonies, please sir,” I said.
“There’s only one good use for a woman on a ship,” he said as he stalked toward me.
Could I endure weeks or months at the hands of these lonely men?
“We could strip her and use her as a new figurehead,” Murphy suggested.
I winced at the thought of being tied to the front of the ship, bare from the waist up.
“Please,” I begged, not knowing what else to say.
A man came up from the staircase just across the way and walked toward us. Clearly, he was the ship’s captain and the one who would decide what they would do with me.
“Who brought a woman on board?” he thundered.
The burly seaman explained and the captain turned to me.
“She’s hardly a woman—she’s more likely a child,” he said. “Take off that cloak.”
I did as he asked, hoping he would see some reason to keep me aboard.
Although I was small, I hadn’t been a child in years, and the captain recognized it. His face shifted from anger and annoyance to interest—at first.
A gust of wind nearly blew his hat off his head. The captain looked at the sails that once ballooned the direction of our destination billowed and ruffled with the wind. His gaze slid to the growing clouds in the distance—clouds that dropped bolts of lightning to the waves below.
“And this is why you don’t bring a woman on board. Throw her over—and Murphy, take the con.”
I tried to run. I don’t know where I would’ve gone, but I had to try. I made it only a few steps before the giant towered over me and grabbed me with both hands. He easily picked me off the ground and threw me over his shoulder. He walked back to the stern of the boat with me kicking and pummeling his meaty body. With no more care than a man hurling a sack of grain onto a wagon, he tossed me overboard.
The slap of cold water against my skin stung, but it was nothing compared to the freezing temperatures of the sea that seemed to seep into my body. I tread water, trying to keep my head above the waves, but the wool cloak was heavy and was pulling me under.
I shrugged out of the cloak to lighten my load, but in doing so, gulped mouthfuls of thick saltwater. I gagged and coughed, trying to clear my lungs and throat. How could it burn while being cold as snow?
My treading became slower as I lost feeling in my feet and legs. I don’t know how long I kept my head up or when I finally succumbed to the sea. Eventually it just seemed easier to accept that this was as far as I’d get.
As currents pulled me away from the ship and under each wave, my ears filled with the rush of the water and I opened my eyes. Under the water, the world was quiet, peaceful. There was no evidence of the growing storm above. Only a swirl of light and dark. I stayed midway between the surface and the floor of the sea, or so I thought, suspended in this watery airiness.
I took a breath and it didn’t hurt anymore. Unbelieving, I took another breath, and this one came easier. I looked to my left and right, but saw nothing. I looked below me expecting to see nothing but darkness. To my surprise, I saw two figures swimming toward me.
I’d heard tales of sea monsters, but they should be bigger. These were the size of men—or women. As they grew closer to the surface of the sea, the moonlight touched on their bodies and I saw flashes of light, iridescence, like on the inside of a shell.
I kicked my feet and found I could feel them again. Only now when I kicked, I did so with both feet at the same time, as if my feet were tied together with rope. I glanced at my legs and saw the same shine as what swam toward me.
Scales. They were scales.
As the duo approached, I recognized myself in them, and they knew me for what I was: A victim of foolish men.
They swam on either side of me and grasped my arms. They swam with me in tandem until I could do it myself. The water was no longer cold. My lungs no longer burned from the salt. And my legs were now fused together and covered in the same gray-blue scales as my escorts.
My companions led me to a large rock ahead of the ship from which I’d been tossed. They nodded as we broke the surface of the water, our hair pouring over our bare shoulders. We crawled atop the rock and waited for the storm to calm; waited for the ship to sail nearer; waited … for the sailors.